By Timothy E. Sendelbach
Published Thursday, December 1, 2011
| From the December 2011 Issue of FireRescue
It’s a common complaint among firefighters that as officers climb the promotional ladder in pursuit of higher levels of responsibility, they forget where they came from. We forget what it was like to be in the station, to be “one of the guys” (or gals). In reality, however, this complaint reflects what is actually a change in responsibility among the upper ranks.
Case in point: Ask any company officer or crewmember about the most important time on the fireground and they will say without exception that the first five minutes of an incident are the most important. Simply stated, if the first-arriving company screws it up on the front end, we’re destined for problems on the back end.
In the company officer’s world (strategy and tactics), the first five minutes represent everything. Within the first five minutes of their arrival, they strategically place their apparatus, initiate their scene size-up, broadcast their initial radio report, announce and establish their command location and activate their incident action plan by stretching handlines, assigning search crews and deploying the remaining resources to safely and effectively mitigate the incident. In their world, the first five minutes are truly the determining factor of OUR (the fire department’s) success or failure.
In stark contrast, a chief officer is mandated and directed by another authority, an authority who resides outside the adrenalin-driven world of smoke, fire and rapidly stretched handlines—the customer. And customers, whether they realize it or not, focus on a different five minutes—the first two and the last three minutes of an incident.
Consider this: When Mrs. Smith calls 9-1-1, she is most likely experiencing a state of chaos and fear. When the fire department arrives, her fear is either replaced with relief and gratitude toward those who are rendering aid or heightened because it doesn’t appear that the fire department is capable of handling the situation. Put simply: In the first two minutes after the fire department arrives, Mrs. Smith makes an assessment of OUR training, OUR staffing, OUR preparedness and OUR capabilities.
In the first two minutes, she witnesses our composure under fire—“We got this!” or “Oh, sh!$!” In the first two minutes, company officers and their crews make an indelible impression on the customer—one that chief officers may never have the opportunity to modify or erase.
If a company officer and their crew arrive ill-prepared, demonstrate a lack of organization or communicate with an elevated, less-than-sympathetic tone, the fire department may face the consequences via a reduction in public/political support, budget reductions and administrative directives that compromise our operational norms (aka professional comfort zones). Once these cards are dealt, a chief officer has no other option but to play the hand they’re given.
Fortunately for the fire department, company officers have a trump card: the last three minutes of an incident. It’s those last three minutes that can decide the future of an organization. The last three minutes, if used correctly, will become the story that Mrs. Smith tells her neighbor, her family and her lifelong friend—who just might happen to be the mayor.
The question: What do YOU as a company officer do with those last three minutes? Do you slap high-fives with your crew and boast about your performance in battling the beast? Do you dump the burnt debris from Hell’s Kitchen (aka Mrs. Smith’s kitchen) in the front yard for all to see? Or do you address the needs of Mrs. Smith with a sympathetic ear, a strong shoulder and willingness to help?
Do you answer her questions, explaining the cuts in the roof, the pulled sheetrock and the broken windows? Do you comfort her with a blanket, shield her from the inclement weather, retrieve her shoes, search for her medications and ensure that she’s given the direction and guidance she needs to recover from this tragic event?
The five minutes on the front end that every company officer seeks to perfect are unquestionably the most important in ensuring our operational success or failure. But as important as these first five minutes are to the direction of an incident, it’s the last three minutes that determine the long-term direction, and success, of our department.
It’s not that chief officers have forgotten what it feels like to pull the first handline, to focus all our energy on those first five minutes that mean so much. But rather, it’s that we’ve come to understand that those are not the only five minutes that matter.
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